Wireless technology that will bring Internet-type services to mobile phones is gradually coming to market, and one Swedish company claims to have overcome several limitations that were slowing progress.
The first handsets incorporating wireless application protocol (WAP) technology will let users access services including news, directory services and travel information. Orange and Vodafone have announced WAP services in the UK, but a shortage of special handsets - caused by manufacturing delays - has restricted their rollout.
Swedish mobile technology vendor Across Wireless claims operators can overcome the handset shortage using its technology that puts Wap on regular handsets. It says it can also add advanced features such as transaction security, support for location-based services and push technology, all of which are missing from initial Wap handsets.
"One of the early shortcomings is that there are no terminals out there. OK, why not implant a Wap browser on a Sim card so people can use their old handsets?" said Per Lundh, vice president of business development at Across Wireless.
The company can do this using its existing products for remotely managing Sim cards - the cards inside GSM phones that store the customer's account details. Its software is used by BT Cellnet to invisibly update customers' Sim cards, so when they are abroad, they roam onto the cheapest local network.
Wap holds great potential for letting users conduct wireless ecommerce - for example, buying travel tickets using their handsets. An equivalent to the electronic signature technology used to secure Internet transactions is needed before wireless ecommerce can take off, Lundh said. Across has designed an e-signature plug-in that can be added to the user's Sim card.
Services that provide information based on a user's location are also possible, but not in the first implementations of Wap. Across is trialing a location-based system with a few operators, using a plug-in to the Wap browser and Sim card.
"The wireless community is adding a new core function to the Internet with location-based services, and it's a long time since anyone added any core functionality to the Internet," said Lundh.
Push technology, the shortlived phenomenon on the Internet, may find a new lease of life through Wap handsets. But support for push, which could deliver job vacancies to users as they come available, for example, is not included in Wap 1.1. Across again claims to have a solution for this using short messaging services.
Across' products do have drawbacks. Even though a user could keep their old handset, they would have to replace the Sim card - a laborious process for user and operator. There are also other weaknesses with Wap: it can't be upgraded remotely, and interoperability between different manufacturers' interpretations of the platform is rife.
Wap subscribers in Europe will rise from around 130 million this year to 200 million in 2001, according to market researcher Dataquest.
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